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   Chapter 2 AN EXPERIMENT

The Grey Room By Eden Phillpotts Characters: 24847

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Ernest Travers, Felix Fayre-Michell, Tom May, and Colonel Vane followed Sir Walter upstairs to a great corridor, which ran the length of the main front, and upon which opened a dozen bedrooms and dressing-rooms. They proceeded to the eastern extremity. It was lighted throughout, and now their leader took off an electric bulb from a sconce on the wall outside the room they had come to visit.

"There is none in there," he explained, "though the light was installed in the Grey Room as elsewhere when I started my own plant twenty years ago. My father never would have it. He disliked it exceedingly, and believed it aged the eyes."

Henry arrived with the key. The door was unlocked, and the light established. The party entered a large and lofty chamber with ceiling of elaborate plaster work and silver-grey walls, the paper on which was somewhat tarnished. A pattern of dim, pink roses as large as cabbages ran riot over it. A great oriel window looked east, while a smaller one opened upon the south. Round the curve of the oriel ran a cushioned seat eighteen inches above the ground, while on the western side of the room, set in the internal wall, was a modern fireplace with a white Adams mantel above it. Some old, carved chairs stood round the walls, and in one corner, stacked together, lay half a dozen old oil portraits, grimy and faded. They called for the restorer, but were doubtfully worth his labors. Two large chests of drawers, with rounded bellies, and a very beautiful washing-stand also occupied places round the room, and against the inner wall rose a single, fourposter bed of Spanish chestnut, also carved. A grey, self-colored carpet covered the floor, and on one of the chests stood a miniature bronze copy of the Faun of Praxiteles.

The apartment was bright and cheerful of aspect. Nothing gloomy or depressing marked it, nor a suggestion of the sinister.

"Could one wish for a more amiable looking room?" asked Fayre-Michell.

They gazed round them, and Ernest Travers expressed admiration at the old furniture.

"My dear Walter, why hide these things here?" he asked. "They are beautiful, and may be valuable, too."

"I've been asked the same question before," answered the owner. "And they are valuable. Lord Bolsover offered me a thousand guineas for those two chairs; but the things are heirlooms in a sort of way, and I shouldn't feel justified in parting with them. My grandfather was furniture mad-spent half his time collecting old stuff on the Continent. Spain was his happy hunting ground."

"It's positively a shame to doom these chairs to a haunted room, uncle," declared Henry.

But the other shook his head and smothered a yawn.

"The house is too full as it is." he said.

"Mary wants you to scrap dozens of things," replied his nephew. "Then there'd be plenty of room."

"You'll do what you please when your turn comes, and no doubt cast out my tusks and antlers and tiger-skins, which I know you don't admire. Wait in patience, Henry. And we will now go to bed," answered the elder. "I am fatigued, and it must be nearly midnight."

Then Tom May brought their thoughts back to the reason of the visit.

"Look here, governor," he said. "It's a scandal to give a champion room like this a bad name and shut it up. You've fallen into the habit, but you know it's all nonsense. Mary loves this room. I'll make you a sporting offer. Let me sleep in it to-night, and then, when I report a clean bill to-morrow, you can throw it open again and announce it is forgiven without a stain on its character. You've just said you don't believe spooks have the power to hurt anybody. Then let me turn in here."

Sir Walter, however, refused.

"No, Tom; most certainly not. It's far too late to go over the ground again and explain why, but I don't wish it."

"A milder-mannered room was never seen," said Ernest Travers. "You must let me look at it by daylight, and bring Nelly. The ceiling, too, is evidently very fine-finer even than the one in my room."

"The ceilings here were all the work of Italians in Tudor times," explained his friend. "They are Elizabethan. The plaster is certainly wonderful, and my ceilings are considered as good as anything in the country, I believe."

He turned, and the rest followed him.

Henry removed the electric bulb, and restored it to its place outside. Then his uncle gave him the key.

"Put it back in the cabinet," he said. "I won't go down again."

The party broke up, and all save Lennox and the sailor went to their rooms. The two younger men descended together and, when out of ear-shot of his uncle, Henry spoke.

"Look here, Tom," he said, "you've given me a tip. I'm going to camp out in the Grey Room to-night. Then, in the morning, I'll tell Uncle Walter I have done so, and the ghost's number will be up."

"Quite all right, old man-only the plan must be modified. I'll sleep there. I'm death on it, and the brilliant inspiration was mine, remember."

"You can't. He refused to let you."

"I didn't hear him."

"Oh, yes, you did-everybody did. Besides, this is fairly my task-you won't deny that. Chadlands will be mine, some day, so it's up to me to knock this musty yarn on the head once and for all. Could anything be more absurd than shutting up a fine room like that? I'm really rather ashamed of Uncle Walter."

"Of course it's absurd but, honestly, I'm rather keen about this. I'd dearly love to add a medieval phantom to my experiences, and only wish I thought anything would show up. I beg you'll raise no objection. It was my idea, and I very much wish to make the experiment. Of course, I don't believe in anything supernatural."

They went back to the billiard-room, dismissed Fred Caunter, the footman, who was waiting to put out the lights, and continued their discussion. The argument began to grow strenuous, for each proved determined, and who owned the stronger will seemed a doubtful question.

For a time, since no conclusion could satisfy both, they abandoned the centre of contention and debated, as their elders had done, on the general question. Henry declared himself not wholly convinced. He adopted an agnostic attitude, while Tom frankly disbelieved. The one preserved an open mind, the other scoffed at apparitions in general.

"It's humbug to say sailors are superstitious now," he asserted. "They might have been, but my experience is that they are no more credulous than other people in these days. Anyway, I'm not. Life is a matter of chemistry. There's no mumbo jumbo about it, in my opinion. Chemical analysis has reached down to hormones and enzymes and all manner of subtle secretions discovered by this generation of inquirers; but it's all organic. Nobody has ever found anything that isn't. Existence depends on matter, and when the chemical process breaks down, the organism perishes and leaves nothing. When a man can't go on breathing, he's dead, and there's an end of him."

But Henry had read modern science also.

"What about the vital spark, then? Biologists don't turn down the theory of vitalism, do they?"

"Most of them do, who count, my dear chap. The presence of a vital spark-a spark that cannot be put out-is merely a theory with nothing to prove it. When he dies, the animating principle doesn't leave a man, and go off on its own. It dies too. It was part of the man-as much as his heart or brain."

"That's only an opinion. Nobody can be positive. We don't know anything about what life really means, and we haven't got the machinery to find out."

"By analogy we can," argued Tom. "Where are you going to draw the line? Life is life, and a sponge is just as much alive as a herring; a nettle is just as much alive as an oak-tree; and an oak-tree is just as much alive as you are. What becomes of its vital spark when you eat an oyster?"

"You wouldn't believe in a life after death at all, then?"

"It's a pure assumption, Henry. I'd like to believe in it-who wouldn't? Because, if you honestly did, it would transform this life into something infinitely different from what it is."

"It ought to-yet it doesn't seem to."

"It ought to, certainly. If you believe this life is only the portal to another of much greater importance, then-well, there you are. Nothing matters but trying to make everybody else believe it, too. But as a matter of fact, the people who do believe it, or think they do, seem to me just as concentrated on this life and just as much out to get the very best they can from it, and wring it dry, as I am, who reckon it's all."

"They believe as a matter of course, and don't seem to realize how much their belief ought to imply," confessed Henry.

"Why do they believe? Because most of them haven't really thought about it more than a turnip thinks. They dwell in a foggy sort of way on the future life when they go to church on Sundays; then they return home and forget all about it till next Sunday."

Lennox brought him back to the present difference.

"Well, seeing you laugh at ghosts, and I remain doubtful, it's only fair that I sleep in the Grey Room. You must see that. Ghosts hate people who don't believe in them. They'd cold shoulder you; but in my case they might feel I was good material, worth convincing. They might show up for me in a friendly spirit. If they show for you, it will probably be to bully you."

Tom laughed.

"That's what I want. I'd like to have it out and talk sense to a spook, and show him what an ass he's making of himself. The governor was right about that. When Fayre-Michell asked if he believed in them loafing about a place where they'd been murdered or otherwise maltreated, he rejected the idea."

"Yet a woman certainly died there, and without a shadow of reason."

"She probably died for a very good reason, only we don't happen to know it."

Henry tried a different argument.

"You're married, and you matter; I'm not married, and don't matter to anybody."

"Humbug!"

"Mary wouldn't like it, anyway; you know that."

"True-she'd hate it. But she won't know anything about it till to-morrow. She always sleeps in her old nursery when she comes here, and I'm down the corridor at the far end. She'd have a fit if she knew I'd turned in next door to her and was snoozing in the Grey Room; but she won't know till I tell her of my rash act to-morrow. Don't think I'm a fool. Nobody loves life better than I do, and nobody has better reason to. But I'm positive that this is all rank nonsense, and so are you really. We know there's nothing in the room with a shadow of supernatural danger about it. Besides, you wouldn't want to sleep there so badly if you believed anything wicked was waiting for you. You're tons cleverer than I am-so you must agree about that."

Lennox was bound to confess that he entertained no personal fear. They still argued, and the clock struck midnight. Then the sailor made a suggestion.

"Since you're so infernally obstinate, I'll do this. We'll toss up, and the winner can have the fun. That's fair to both."

The other agreed; he tossed a coin, and May called "tails," and won.

He was jubilant, while Henry showed a measure of annoyance. The other consoled him.

"It's better so, old man. You're highly strung and nervy, and a poet and all that sort of thing. I'm no better than a prize ox, and don't know what nerves mean. I can sleep anywhere, anyhow. If you can sleep in a submarine, you bet you can in a nice, airy Elizabethan room, even if it is haunted. But it's not; that's the whole point. There's not a haunted room in the world. Get me your service revolver, like a good chap."

Henry was silent, and Tom rose to make ready for his vigil.

"I'm dog-tired, anyhow," he said. "Nothing less than Queen Elizabeth herself will keep me awake, if it does appear."

Then the other surprised him.

"Don't think I want to go back on it. You've won the right to make the experiment-if we ignore Uncle Walter. But-well, you'll laugh, yet, on my honor, Tom, I've got a feeling I'd rather you didn't. It isn't nerves. I'm not nervy any more than you are. I'm not suggesting that I go now, of course. But I do ask you to think better of it and chuck the thing."

"Why?"

"Well, one can't help one's feelings. I do feel a rum sort of conviction at the bottom of my mind that it's not good enough. I can't explain; there are no words for it that I know

, but it's growing on me. Intuition, perhaps."

"Intuition of what?"

"I can't tell you. But I ask you not to go."

"You were going if you'd won the toss?"

"I know."

"Then your growing intuition is only because I won it. Hanged if I don't think you want to funk me, old man!"

"I couldn't do that. But it's different me going and you going. I've got nothing to live for. Don't think I'm maudlin, or any rot of that sort; but you know all about the past. I've never mentioned it to you, and, of course, you haven't to me; and I never should have. But I will now. I loved Mary with all my heart and soul, Tom. She didn't know how much, and probably I didn't either. But that's done, and no man on earth rejoices in her great happiness more than I do. And no man on earth is going to be a better or a truer friend to you and her than, please God, I shall be. But that being so, can't you see the rest? My life ended in a way when the dream of my life ended. I attach no importance to living for itself, and if anything final happened to me it wouldn't leave a blank anywhere. You're different. In sober honesty you oughtn't to run into any needless danger-real or imaginary. I'm thinking of Mary only when I say that-not you."

"But I deny the danger."

"Yes; only you might listen. So did I, but I deny it no longer. The case is altered when I tell you in all seriousness-when I take my oath if you like-that I do believe now there is something in this. I don't say it's supernatural, and I don't say it isn't; but I do feel deeply impressed in my mind now, and it's growing stronger every minute, that there's something here out of the common and really infernally dangerous."

The other looked at him in astonishment.

"What bee has got into your bonnet?"

"Don't call it that. It's a conviction, Tom. Do be guided by me, old chap!"

The sailor flushed a little, emptied his glass, and rose.

"If you really wanted to choke me off, you chose a funny way to do so. Surely it only needed this to determine anybody. If you, as a sane person, honestly believe there's a pinch of danger in that blessed place, then I certainly sleep there to-night, or else wake there."

"Let me come, too, then, Tom."

"That be damned for a yarn! Ghosts don't show up for two people-haven't got pluck enough. If I get any sport, I'll be quite straight about it, and you shall try your luck to-morrow."

"I can only make it a favor; and not for your own sake, either."

"I know. Mary will be sleeping the sleep of the just in the next room. How little she'll guess! Perhaps, if I see an apparition worthy of the Golden Age, I'll call her up."

"Do oblige me, May."

"In anything on earth but this thing. It's really too late now. Don't you see you've defeated your own object? You mustn't ask me to throw up the sponge to your sudden intuition of danger sprung on me at the eleventh hour. I won the toss, and can't take my orders from you, old chap, can I?"

The other, in his turn, grew a little warm.

"All right. I've spoken. I think you're rather a fool to be so obstinate. It isn't as if a nervous old woman was talking to you. But you'll go your own way. It doesn't matter a button to me, and I only made it a favor for somebody else's sake."

"We'll leave it at that, then. May I trouble you for the key? And your revolver, too. I haven't got mine here."

Henry hesitated. The key was in the pocket of his jacket.

"It is a matter of honor, Lennox," said the sailor.

The other handed over the key on this speech, and prepared to go.

"I'll get the revolver," he said.

"Thanks. Look me up in the morning, if you're awake first," added May; but the other did not answer.

He let Tom precede him, and then turned out the lights. Other lights he also extinguished as they left the hall and ascended the stairs. The younger's pride was struggling for mastery; but he conquered it and spoke again.

"I wish to Heaven you could see it from another point of view than your own, Tom."

"I have no point of view. You're rather exasperating, and don't seem to understand that, even if I might have changed my mind before, it's impossible now."

"That's really only a foolish sort of pride. If I chose my words clumsily-"

"You did. The devil and all his angels wouldn't make me climb down now."

The younger left him, and returned in a minute or two with the revolver.

"Good-night," he said.

"Good-night, old boy. Thank you. Loaded?"

"In all the chambers. Funny you should want it."

"Take it back, then."

But Henry did not answer, and they parted. Each sought his own bedroom, and while Lennox retired at once and might have been expected to pass a night more mentally peaceful than the other, in reality it was not so.

The younger slept ill, while May suffered no emotion but annoyance. He was contemptuous of Henry. It seemed to him that he had taken a rather mean and unsporting line, nor did he believe for a moment that he was honest. Lennox had a modern mind; he had been through the furnace of war; he had received a first-class education. It seemed impossible to imagine that he spoke the truth, or that his sudden suspicion of real perils, beyond human power to combat, could be anything but a spiteful attempt to put May off, after he himself had lost the toss. Yet that seemed unlike a gentleman. Then the allusion to Mary perturbed the sailor. He could not quarrel with the words, but he resented the advice, seeing what it was based upon.

His anger lessened swiftly, however, and before he started his adventure he had dismissed Henry from his mind. He put on pyjamas and a dressing-gown, took a candle, a railway-rug, his watch, and the loaded revolver.

Then he walked quietly down the corridor to the Grey Room. On reaching it his usual good temper returned, and he found himself entirely happy and contented. He unlocked the forbidden entrance, set his candle by the bed, and locked the door again from inside. He rolled up his dressing-gown for a pillow, and placed his watch and revolver and candle at his hand on a chair. A few broken reflections drifted through his mind, as he yawned and prepared to sleep. His brain brought up events of the day-a missed shot, a good shot, lunch under a haystack with Mary and Fayre-Michell's niece. She was smart and showy and slangy-cheap every way compared with Mary. What would his wife think if she knew he was so near? Come to him for certain. He cordially hoped that he might not be recalled to his ship; but there was a possibility of it. It would be rather a lark to show the governor over the Indomitable. She was a "hush-hush" ship-one of the wonders of the Navy still. Funny that the Italian roof of the Grey Room looked like a dome, though it was really flat. A cunning trick of perspective.

It was a still and silent night, moonless, very dark, and very tranquil. He went to the window to throw it open.

Only a solitary being waked long that night at Chadlands, and only a solitary mind suffered tribulation. But into the small hours Henry Lennox endured the companionship of disquiet thoughts. He could not sleep, and his brain, clear enough, retraced no passage from the past day. Indeed the events of the day had sunk into remote time. He was only concerned with the present, and he wondered while he worried that he should be worrying. Yet a proleptic instinct made him look forward. He had neither lied nor exaggerated to May. From the moment of losing the toss, he honestly experienced a strong, subjective impression of danger arising out of the proposed attack on the mysteries of the Grey Room. It was, indeed, that consciousness of greater possibilities in the adventure than May admitted or imagined which made Lennox so insistent. Looking back, he perceived many things, and chiefly that he had taken a wrong line, and approached Mary's husband from a fatal angle. Too late he recognized his error. It was inevitable that a hint of suspected danger would confirm the sailor in his resolution; and that such a hint should follow the spin of the coin against Lennox, and be accompanied by the assurance that, had he won, Henry would have proceeded, despite his intuitions, to do what he now begged Tom not to do-that was a piece of clumsy work which he deeply regretted.

At the hour when his own physical forces were lowest, his errors of diplomacy forced themselves upon his mind. He wasted much time, as all men do upon their beds, in anticipating to-morrow; in considering what is going to happen, or what is not; in weighing their own future words and deeds given a variety of contingencies. For reason, which at first kept him, despite his disquiet, in the region of the rational, grew weaker with Henry as the night advanced; the shadow of trouble deepened as his weary wits lost their balance to combat it. The premonition was as formless and amorphous as a cloud, and, though he could not see any shape to his fear, or define its limitations, it grew darker ere he slept. He considered what might happen and, putting aside any lesser disaster, tried to imagine what the morning would bring if May actually succumbed.

For the moment the size of such an imaginary disaster served curiously to lessen his uneasiness. Pushed to extremities, the idea became merely absurd. He won a sort of comfort from such an outrageous proposition, because it brought him back to the solid ground of reason and the assurance that some things simply do not happen. From this extravagant summit of horror, his fears gradually receded. Such a waking nightmare even quieted his nerves when it was past; for if a possibility presents a ludicrous side, then its horror must diminish by so much. Moreover, Henry told himself that if the threat of a disaster so absolute could really be felt by him, it was his duty to rise at once, intervene, and, if necessary, summon his uncle and force May to leave the Grey Room immediately.

This idea amused him again and offered another jest. The tragedy really resolved into jests. He found himself smiling at the picture of May being treated like a disobedient schoolboy. But if that happened, and Tom was proclaimed the sinner, what must be Henry's own fate? To win the reputation of an unsportsmanlike sneak in Mary's opinion as well as Tom's. He certainly could call upon nobody to help him now. But he might go and look up May himself. That would be very sharply resented, however. He travelled round and round in circles, then asked himself what he would do and say to-morrow if anything happened to Tom-nothing, of course, fatal, but something perhaps so grave that May himself would be unable to explain it. In that case Henry could only state facts exactly as they had occurred. But there would be a deuce of a muddle if he had to make statements and describe the exact sequence of recent incidents. Already he forgot the exact sequence. It seemed ages since he parted from May. He broke off there, rose, drank a glass of water, and lighted a cigarette. He shook himself into wakefulness, condemned himself for this debauch of weak-minded thinking, found the time to be three o'clock, and brushed the whole cobweb tangle from his mind. He knew that sudden warmth after cold will often induce sleep-a fact proved by incidents of his campaigns-so he trudged up and down and opened his window and let the cool breath of the night chill his forehead and breast for five minutes.

This action calmed him, and he headed himself off from returning to the subject. He felt that mental dread and discomfort were only waiting to break out again; but he smothered them, returned to bed, and succeeded in keeping his mind on neutral-tinted matter until he fell asleep.

He woke again before he was called, rose and went to his bath. He took it cold, and it refreshed him and cleared his head, for he had a headache. Everything was changed, and the phantoms of his imagination remained only as memories to be laughed at. He no longer felt alarm or anxiety. He dressed presently, and guessing that Tom, always the first to rise, might already be out of doors, he strolled on to the terrace presently to meet him there.

Already he speculated whether an apology was due from him to May, or whether he might himself expect one. It didn't matter. He knew perfectly well that Tom was all right now, and that was the only thing that signified.

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